Monday, July 05, 2004

"Their George And Ours"

Don't miss this incredible Fourth of July op-ed by my fellow Reed College alumna Barbara Ehrenreich.
George III is accused, for example, of "depriving us in many cases of the benefits of Trial by Jury." Our own George II has imprisoned two U.S. citizens — Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi — since 2002, without benefit of trials, legal counsel or any opportunity to challenge the evidence against them. Even die-hard Tories Scalia and Rehnquist recently judged such executive hauteur intolerable.

It would be silly, of course, to overstate the parallels between 1776 and 2004. The signers of the declaration were colonial subjects of a man they had come to see as a foreign king. One of their major grievances had to do with the tax burden imposed on them to support the king's wars. In contrast, our taxes have been reduced — especially for those who need the money least — and the huge costs of war sloughed off to our children and grandchildren. [...]

But the parallels are there, and undeniable. "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power," the declaration said of George III, and today the military is indulgently allowed to investigate its own crimes in Iraq. George III "obstructed the Administration of Justice." Our George II has sought to evade judicial review by hiding detainees away in Guantánamo, and has steadfastly resisted the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-U.S. citizens to bring charges of human rights violations to U.S. courts.
No doubt, this piece will arouse all kinds of indignation from people who think it's "political hate speech" and dreadful hyperbole to compare George W. Bush to a known tyrant. But by the prevailing political standards of 1776, the American colonists weren't particularly oppressed and didn't have much to complain about. George III wasn't a Caligula or a Sun King. There was nothing unusually decadent or cruel about his reign. But American colonists had the bold vision that more was possible. They wanted to live with a degree of liberty and self-governance that had previously been unknown, and they were willing to risk everything in order to obtain it.

Ehrenreich closes with a sober reminder:
Today, those who believe that the war on terror requires the sacrifice of our liberties like to argue that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact." In a sense, however, the Declaration of Independence was precisely that.

By signing Jefferson's text, the signers of the declaration were putting their lives on the line. England was then the world's greatest military power, against which a bunch of provincial farmers had little chance of prevailing. Benjamin Franklin wasn't kidding around with his quip about hanging together or hanging separately. If the rebel American militias were beaten on the battlefield, their ringleaders could expect to be hanged as traitors.
On this Independence Day weekend, may we all find within ourselves the courage of our forebears.